Thursday, March 31, 2016

Best of Classroom Graphic Novels, via #TLAP Twitter Chat 3/21/2016

Way back on March 21st we had a great time in the #TLAP (Teach Like a Pirate) Twitter chat talking about graphic novels and comic books in the classroom. In the course of that hour, the teachers mentioned nearly 100 different titles that they either already use in their classes, or that they'd like to find ways to use. So I figured I'd put together a list of what they came up with. And then spring break happened. You know how it is. So here's the list alphabetically; it's not ordered in terms of grade or content, but if it's in bold it's an adaptation of an existing book, if it's in italics, it's part of a series. Here's the list:

American Born Chinese
Amulet
Anne Frank: Authorized Graphic Biography
Artemis Fowl
Asterix
Avengers: No More Bullying
Babymouse
Beowulf
Big Nate
Blankets
Blazing Combat
Bone
Boxcar Children
Capstone Science Series
Captain Marvel
Captain Underpants
Cartoon Guide to Communication
Cartoon Guide to the Environment
Cartoon History of the Universe
Climate Changed
Death Jr.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Dork Diaries
Dreamland Chronicles
Edward Scissorhands
El Deafo
Essex County
Gear School
Geronimo Stilton
Gotham Academy
Gotham Central
Graphic Myths and Legends
Harlem Hellfighters
Heroes: 9/11 (Marvel Comics)
Hyperbole and a Half
I Kill Giants
I’m Not a Plastic Bag
Ivy and Bean
Les Miserables
Lions, Tigers, and Bears
Los Tejanos and the Lost Cause
Lumberjanes
Lunch Lady
March
Maus
Max Axiom
Mouseguard
Ms Marvel
My Friend Dahmer
Naruto
Nat Turner
Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales
No Fear Shakespeare
Owly
Persepolis
Pride of Baghdad
Primates
Rapunzel’s Revenge
Rollergirl
Romeo and Juliet: The War
Runaways
September 11, 2001 (DC Comics)
Stitches
The Arrival
The Babysitter Club
The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation
The Girl Who Owned a City
The Hobbit
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
The Lightning Thief
The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation
The Vietnam War
The Wizard of Oz
Thieves and Kings
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
Trinity: The Story of the Atomic Bomb
V for Vendetta
Watchmen
Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story
Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty

 All told, a very good, diverse list from teachers who are already interested in teaching using comic books and graphic novels. If you have other recommendations, let me know; I'm always looking for great resources to share with teachers and parents.






Tuesday, March 22, 2016

#TLAP Chat Recap March 21: Who Are Teachers' Superheroes?

Monday March 21st I was invited to host the Teach Like a Pirate (#tlap) chat on Twitter. The topic was Comic Books and Graphic Novels in the Classroom. We started the chat with introductions, and with the introductions, I asked for the teachers' favorite superheroes.

Partially because of the topic of the chat of course, but I also wanted to get teachers feeling nostalgic about the heroes they grew up with. My personal favorite superhero is Aquaman--not because he's the strongest or has the best powers or toys or secret lair or villains--but because of the connection I've had for him ever since I was a kid watching Super Friends. He's cool. That's it.

I wanted to see how individual heroes would fare, but also wanted to see if Marvel Comics' impressive lineup of movies would influence peoples' choices, and if, as I suspected, Batman would win out. Because...he's Batman. These were the results of 56 responses, with the number of votes each hero received:


Wonder Woman 11
Batman 8
Aquaman 3
Black Panther 3
Captain America 3
Green Lantern 3
Iron Man 3
Storm 3
Underdog 3
The Flash 2
She-Ra 2
Superman 2
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2
Bionic Woman
Daredevil
Deadpool
Elastigirl
Gambit
Ghostbusters
Hawkeye
Quailman
Shadowcat
Super Grover
Thor
The Tick
Wolverine
X-Men

Yeah. Wonder Woman beat Batman. And Superman. And Captain America. And Iron Man. And...everyone else. I'm a big Wonder Woman fan myself (it's the character I'm looking most forward to seeing in Batman V Superman)(and really, she's my hope for the DC Cinematic Universe in general), so I was pleased to see her come out on top. 



The breakdown by company:

30 votes for DC Comics Characters
23 votes for Marvel Comics Characters
13 votes for other heroes

I loved seeing a few old friends in the mix: Underdog, the Bionic Woman, Super Grover...they were unexpected answers, but I loved them. 

Are there heroes who didn't make the list who should have? Why would a group of teachers pick these heroes as their favorites? Is it something about us, something about the heroes, or just a random assortment of characters? In any case, it was a good start to a fantastic chat. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Graphic Novel Review: Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas


Primates Book Cover

"Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas" Jim Ottaviani & Maris Wicks. Graphic Novel, 140 pages. 2013, First Second Books (8/10)
Primates is a book I saw on lists for a year before I actually picked it up. I've become a fan of Jim Ottaviani's non-fiction graphic novels over the last few years, and this is another in that same genre. His books are mostly biographies of scientists: Feynman, Bohr, Turing, an anthology of female scientists; also scientific advancements, like the Space Race and paleontology. He manages to blend the biographies of the scientists with their achievements, finding partners in illustrators who can bring life to both the human and the scientific parts of the equation. 

Jane Goodall's CampThis book follows the lives of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, three women whose lives and careers crossed the path of Louis Leakey, famed anthropologist, who aids them on their paths to being the preeminent researchers of primates--apes. I had heard of Goodall (still alive and active in her field and advocacy for primate studies) and Fossey (subject of the book and film Gorillas in the Mist), but didn't know Galdikas at all. The three women conducted "fearless" science in the pursuit of their subjects, sacrificing personal lives and comfort to follow their passion. 
The book breaks easily into three sections, each following the course of a scientist and the creatures they studied (and lived with). Goodall with chimpanzees, Fossey mountain gorillas, and Galdikas orangutans. I gotta say, apes kinda freak me out. I had a run-in with a chimp at a birthday party once, and ended up convinced that he was going to climb me and pull out my yellow hair and eat it like a banana. That isn't what happened, but ever since...I know I'm supposed to like them and think they're clever or whatever, but they give me the willies. This book may have helped heal some of that damage.
Birute Galdikas and OrangutansLouis Leakey promoted the causes of these researchers, even though they didn't have as much education or training as others in their field. Ottaviani implies that some of his interest was because they were attractive young women, and he was a notable philanderer. He also makes clear Leakey's real reasons: that apes were less aggressive toward females than males, and the women were likely to get closer and earn the trust of their subjects. Their relative lack of education and training also cleared any preconceived notions that the scientists would have; they had the skills and were able to observe the apes, but also did "unscientific" things like assigning the animals names instead of numbers. The relationship and feeling they developed for their subjects is evident in the passion they ended up having for their science -- moving beyond a career and into a mission. 
Wicks' style is cartoony, but in a way that makes the complex jungles and animals less distracting from the stories than a more realistic depiction might have been. We bond quickly with the people in the book, and maybe even more quickly with the animals. This is aided by the artwork. In order to tell three different biographies, Ottaviani and Wicks find a short of visual shorthand that moves the stories along quickly. Instead of explaining the lush jungles and family groupings and the foreign sounds of Africa and Indonesia, we're able to see it.  
Dian Fossey and gorillasPrimates is appropriate for readers as young as middle grades. They'll like the artwork, but they'll also latch onto the stories of these brave women. If you've seen Gorillas in the Mist, you know that Fossey "meets a bad end" after going up against the Rwandan government and poachers--and that's all that Ottaviani gives us about her. We don't find out how she's been killed, or even that she's been killed. It keeps the book feeling safe, but still implies there's more to her story, giving it a sad note, but not a devastating one. 
If you're a fan of biographies, or science, or (shudder) apes, this is a graphic novel worth your time. Ottaviani's always a solid choice, but this is one of his more entertaining, engaging books.
In the classroom, I can see splitting the book into the stories of the three primatologists, and having students compare their life stories, their research methods, and their findings. All three women have extensive primary sources, letters, journals, and photographs that students could use to explore the "real lives" of these women beyond the brief biographies that Ottaviani is able to provide in this format. Students could also do their own study of gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees, finding video on YouTube and completing their own observations, watching for behavior as Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas did. Finally, students could collaborate on a mapping activity, looking at the three different habitats, and researching the temperature, rainfall, and other characteristics that are necessary for great apes to live.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Graphic Novel Review: The Sculptor

The Sculptor Scott McCloud. 2015, First Second Books. 500 pages, hardcover. (10 out of 10)

Every few years there’s a graphic novel that’s so good at what it does that it transcends the medium. There are many graphic novels that I would recommend to people who are already readers of comic books. I love my superhero comics and graphic novels, but I’ve also come to appreciate the great works of artists like Gene Luen Yang and Marjane Satrapi, Guy Delisle and Shaun Tan. And yet, for most of their books, I’d still only recommend them to fellow fans of that storytelling art. The last book I read that moved me to the point that I’d recommend it as a work of literature, not just as a graphic novel, was Craig Thompson’s Blankets. That was published in 2003, and I’ve been wondering what the next would be that impressed me as much. That next book is here, in Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor.

The 500-page hardcover tells a relatively simple story: underappreciated artist David Smith has a meeting with Death and is granted a wish – that he will give his life to make great art. The way that ends up playing out is that David is made aware of the exact date of his death, and until he dies, he has a superpower of sorts—he can sculpt any material with his bare hands. Marble, iron, concrete, it all molds in his hands like clay. This extraordinary talent, and David’s ticking clock, become a lens for us to examine our own lives.

We watch as David loses friends and family, as he finds love, as he comes to regard his life as a gift and his magical gift as a curse. The story is simple. It’s one that’s been told hundreds, thousands of times even. What makes this examination of love and life and sickness and death and family and friends move beyond the typical graphic novel fare and into what I’d deem “literature” is the thoroughness that David is given to explore these ideas. Much of that is in the dialogue, but even more of it is in the visuals. Too many graphic novels keep their stories grounded in reality to the point that it’s just a text with some pictures in it. Showing the story and telling the story both in the same panel.

McCloud lets David fear and grieve and imagine and work, and do so often on panels and even whole pages without words. He does talk, he talks a lot. But so much of “The Sculptor” is told through the images that the book would be incomplete if it were told in any other medium. Many of the pictures, the angles that we view David and New York City from, are cinematic. There are pans in and out, there are shots that crane in above the crowds, there are crowd scenes where you catch snippets of conversation – but I don’t want to see this made into a movie. It could be. It probably will be. But it won’t be as good as this book.

My favorite of the many themes in the book is about art. About finding your own muse, and your own creative act that will live on beyond you. McCloud may have been getting autobiographical with that—he’s achieved a meisterwerk here that will live on well past him. In an afterword, he writes about how David is him—but quite a bit younger. It’s books like this that inspire readers to do something. Will I ever have a crowning achievement? Will I be remembered? It’s these questions that haunt all of us, artists or not, and McCloud has found a beautiful way to both ask and answer the question.

I’d say all the usual things here – I laughed out loud, I wept, it became a part of my life, I didn’t want to put it down – but none of that is quite right. I mean, all of those things happened. But there was also some pain with reading The Sculptor. It soared, but never without the fear of falling. It warmed, but always with the awareness that you could burn. Much like life itself, David Smith’s journey has real consequences. Magical meetings with Death aside, this was the most visceral book I’ve read in some time. I saw myself in The Sculptor. You will too.



But. Unlike other graphic novels I've reviewed here (and will continue to, once a week, forever), and I mention in my book Play Like a Pirate -- I wouldn't use The Sculptor with students. At least, not the whole book. Excerpts would be wonderful to share with students, especially art students who are learning to put into words what they feel about their creations. But The Sculptor is very much a graphic novel for adults. I'd love to see a high school classroom free enough that teachers would be able to use something like this, but there's sex, there are f-words, there are other pieces of "adult" content and themes. It would cause a ruckus. 

So why review it here? Because it's good enough that for an adult reader who hasn't found That Comic yet that has changed their opinion about graphic novels--this could be it. If you're a teacher who doesn't "get" the graphic novel thing? This one could demonstrate the power of the medium. Even if you don't pick it up for your students, picking it up for yourself could change your understanding of comics, graphic novels, and their potential for your students. Give it a chance. 



Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Graphic Novel Review: Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad!

"Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: Big Bad Ironclad!" (9 out of 10 stars) Nathan Hale. Hardcover graphic novel, 128 pages. Published by Amulet Books, 2012.
Nathan Hale has been one my favorite local (Utah) authors and artists for several years now.  I first met him at a booksigning in suburban Salt Lake City, and casually followed what he was working on since then. "Casually followed" sounds healthier than "stalking." 
Big Bad Ironclad Cover

Hale's current series takes stories from American History and retelling them in a funny and informative way: "Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales." The first in the series is One Dead Spy, the account of Nathan Hale's namesake, um, Nathan Hale.  The second book, also published in 2012, is Big Bad Ironclad!  
Big Bad Ironclad is of course a Civil War tale, about the sea battle between the Monitor and the Virginia (when I was growing up, we called that one the Merrimack), two of the first ironclad ships.  The premise of this series is that each story is narrated by heroic spy Nathan Hale, delaying his own execution Sheherezade-style by telling stories from American History to his own Hangman and a British Provost.  Hale (the author) plays with the idea of Hale (the spy) as an omniscient historian, who's able to tell stories that haven't happened yet, and he's balanced out by the Hangman, who's brutish but loves cute little animals, and the Provost, who reminds me of a stuffier Sam Eagle from "The Muppet Show." But...British. 
Hale, Provost, and the Hangman
A brief prologue does a good job of introducing the Civil War, and even though the ironclad battle is really only one small episode within the larger conflict, the book manages to give perspective to the war.  We meet Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet, we learn about General Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan to cut off the South from any outside support, and meet Gideon Welles, Lincoln's "Father Neptune" and Secretary of the Navy.  These people put the ironclad plans into motion, and does so in a quick, straightforward way that is easy for kids and teens to get aboard with.
Ironclad Battle

The graphic novel format keeps things moving quickly, and lets Hale play with words and images--Gideon Welles' assistant Gustavus Fox is rendered as a cute little fox, and Confederacy naval leader Stephen Mallory is shown as a "sharkface," although Hale does point out that he's not a villain so much as a leader of the opposition.  
Interspersed with the main story about the building and battle of the Monitor and Virginia is the story of William Cushing--a guy I hadn't ever heard of, but a navy officer who ends up becoming the prototype for Navy SEALS.  His adventures punctuate the already exciting war story, and are able to provide a continual thread that gives us insight into the other things that were happening away from the ironclads.  
Big Bad Ironclad includes biographies of the major characters in the story (so that kids can find out that Stephen Mallory wasn't really known as "Sharkface"), a bibliography that includes resources on the Ironclads, the Civil War, and some of the major characters in the book; a "Corrections Baby" page that addresses some historical discrepancies, and a Civil War timeline that points out where Will Cushing was at various points in the conflict.  One of my favorite "extras" is at the bottom of the timeline, where we're shown how to build our own Monitor from a few "plastic bricks." As a die-hard LEGO fan, I was pleased to see that.  This is the second of five Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales books currently in stores, and the sixth is coming this spring. It can't be soon enough. 



Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Four Amazing Women, Four Graphic Novels for International Women's Day

Today is International Women's Day, and although you could and probably should say that every day should be a day for all women and all men and all of everyone, I'm glad there's a day that I can point people towards four graphic novel biographies of four influential women. Except really one of them is about three women, so that makes *counting on fingers* six women.

Here are the four picks:


Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales: The Underground Abductor (2015, Nathan Hale) -- tells the story of Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad, and the abolition movement. It's the fifth in a series of graphic novels about American History perfect for middle grades, told with humor and adventure. Like many of the others I'm featuring today, it's a more complex biography than you'd expect from a "comic book" format. This book also includes small stories about Frederick Douglass and Nat Turner; it's a great introduction to that time period and the building tensions over slavery in the pre-Civil War United States.

Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas (2013, Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks) -- looks at the work of three female scientists who each did groundbreaking research with chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. Good (if brief) biographies of each, including their connections to Dr. Louis Leakey and the challenges they had to overcome as women in their fields in the twentieth century.

Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie - A Tale of Love and Fallout (2010, Lauren Redniss) -- this unusual book breaks the typical format of graphic novels told within panels (like a comic book), opening and intermingling the artwork and words in a beautiful way. The story is more than just a biographic retelling of Marie Curie's discoveries, and gets into her tumultuous relationship with Pierre.

Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story (2013, Peter Bagge) -- despite the cartoony illustrations, this biography of Sanger is often very adult, with descriptions and captions as frank as Sanger herself is in describing sexuality. This is a great example of a historic biography I'd love to share with students--if it weren't for two pages in the middle somewhere. Nonetheless, as an adult reader, and a history teacher without the best grasp on who she was and why she was so important, this was a perfect primer to the woman and her personality. Well worth your time, even if it's not one you hand to a student.





Friday, March 4, 2016

LEGO Set of the Month: Scooby-Doo's Mystery Machine

I'm a lifelong fan of Scooby-Doo. I'm old enough to remember the original iteration of the cartoon, which started in 1969, ran through the 1970s, and has had some version of the show on the air nearly continuously ever since. There was the Scrappy-Doo fiasco, there have been live action movies, and a recent version, Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated is probably the smartest and funniest version of the Meddling Kids ever made. That said, none of them would have happened if the original series hadn't been so strong. That's part of why I'm so happy that LEGO chose the first season of Scooby-Doo as inspiration for its first lineup, which launched last summer.

There are five sets, ranging in price from $12.99 to $79.99. Each of them has Shaggy and Scooby-Doo, and at least one monster/ghost/guy dressed up to scare away mystery-solving teenagers. Of the sets, my favorite is the Mystery Machine. I have a thing for iconic fictional cars, whether it's the Batmobile or Doc Brown's Time Machine, Fred Flintstone's steamroller-style car, or the ECTO-1. The Mystery Machine is solidly in that garage-shaped pantheon. And the LEGO version is just about perfect.

LEGO Mystery Machine with minifigures

The Mystery Machine, often called a classic VW bus, isn't. It's got a different shape, more angular and shorter. Hanna-Barbera probably didn't want to pay royalties to Volkswagen, so Mystery Inc's wheels aren't German-made. Or...German-engineered, made in Mexico, which is what currently happens. Anyway. It's got the spare tire mounted on the front of the van, it's definitely got the classic hippie van vibe. LEGO has made VW buses before, but this was their first attempt at the Mystery Machine. It's beautiful.

The colors, lime green and turquoise, are perfect. Both relatively new colors in the LEGO palette, they're essential to get the cartoony look right, and they've got them. The outside is covered with stickers (it would have been better as printed pieces, but it would also probably cost $5.00 more), to give it that flowery groovy look. What impresses me most is the shape. Kind of top-heavy, with a combination of angles and curves that can be tricky when building with LEGO. It's not just a straight-sided van; it's...cartoony. The windshield is (I believe) a brand-new piece, and it's perfect for the vehicle. The unique shape of the windshield opens up the front seats of the van, with enough room for driver and passenger to sit side-by-side.

Mystery Machine interior

The interior is detailed, with a radio in the front, and a kitchen with stove and sink in the back. There's also a big Scooby-and-Shaggy style sandwich on a countertop, and a tape recorder (it's either a reel-to-reel or a VHS), radar screen, and computer terminal in the back. For crime-solvin'. There are also crime lab-style bulletin boards on either wall behind the kitchen equipment. They crammed a lot into one van, and the rear swings open and the top comes off to allow play inside. 

Fred Minifigure

The minifigures are darn near perfect--Fred and Shaggy both have new, unique hairpieces that are more cartoony than most current LEGO hair, but look completely on-model for the characters. They're classic Scooby, with Fred's orange ascot and Shaggy's green t-shirt with short sleeves (a relatively new LEGO innovation on their minifigures). Both Fred and Shaggy have two-sided heads so they can be either happy or scared; just take off the hairpiece and turn the head around. Scooby-Doo himself is an all-new molded piece, with a turning head but otherwise solid. My son pointed out that one side of Scooby's face is scared, the other side happy--it gives him a slightly crooked face, which is just fine. The villain that comes with this set is the zombie from the first season episode "Which Witch is Which?" He's also got a robotic tree, which matches the headline of the newspaper that Fred's got, "Tree Comes To Life" 

For $29.99, the Mystery Machine is about average for a set of that size. I'm impressed with everything that's included. The hard part for me is what's not included--or who. And that's Daphne Blake and Velma Dinkley. That's right, I know their last names. Don't be surprised. (and Shaggy's real name is Norville Rogers, and it's Freddy Jones)(you're nerds too, don't judge me) LEGO, like every toy company, is a company, and they want as many of my dollars as they can get. If you're looking to get every Avenger, you're buying every "Avengers" LEGO set. Every Batman villain, the same. In this case, in order to get all five members of Mystery, Inc. you're going to have to buy the Mystery Mansion (largest set at $79.99, and the only one with Velma) (Daphne comes with both this set and the Haunted Lighthouse) and the Mystery Machine, which is the only set with Fred. What that usually means for me is that I end up with half of the Avengers, or I'm missing a few Star Wars characters. In this case, each of the five characters is so important to me that I did it. I built the Mystery Machine now, I'm saving the Mystery Mansion for Halloween. I don't resent it, I understand why they do it, and this time...it worked. 

Mystery Machine and minifigures

LEGO sets typically have a shelf life of about a year to eighteen months. Which means sometime in 2016, you won't be able to find the Mystery Machine as easily. And then not at all. So if you're a nostalgic adult, or got kids who are Scooby fans, the time is now. 
Is there a place for Scooby-Doo in the classroom? There could be. You've got a set of characters and scenario that just about every student in the class knows. They know the main characters, know they solve mysteries, know that they stop pretend ghosts and monsters, unmasking them at the last minute of every adventure. That could be a jumping-off point for writing prompts, for experiments, for school activities around Halloween. 
If you want to go a different route with older kids, students could look at which aspects of counterculture are represented in Scooby-Doo and the other cartoons of that era. These kids are old enough to drive, but they're not adults. The adults they do encounter are often the ones threatening them. A statistical analysis I just made up shows that 96.8% of the characters in the original run of Scooby-Doo were Caucasian. Would that be different today? A director of a Scooby-Doo live touring production compared the cartoon to a 19th Century commedia dell'arte, with stock characters and costumes, but the staging around them changing. We know Velma will lose her glasses, but that's what we want to see. What kind of standard storylines are present in other genres students are exposed to? Is it okay to have a rote format if the story is one that people want to read? 

When it comes down to it, this is a great LEGO set. Whether you buy it for your classroom or your own home, you're going to want to get it while you can. It's pretty darn groovy. 


Yoda was Wrong.

Even typing "Yoda was Wrong" as the title of a blog post feels wrong. I mean, he's the greatest teacher of all time, right? Well. In that faraway galaxy. And many of our childhoods. He's small and green, but wisdom flows through him like the Force itself. I agree with almost every grammatically awkward sentence he utters. And yet, with this idea, perhaps the most-quoted Yodaquote ever, he gets it wrong. Disastrously wrong in the case of teaching Luke Skywalker, and perhaps more disastrously wrong in our classrooms.

In case you haven't viewed The Empire Strikes Back in a while, here's what's up: Luke Skywalker came to the swampy world Dagobah in search of a "Jedi Master" who can continue teaching and training him. When he gets to Dagobah, his X-Wing Fighter crashes into a boggish lake where it slowly sinks over the course of a few days. Eventually it gets to the point that his spaceship is completely submerged. We'll pick up the script from there:

LUKE: Oh, no. We'll never get it out now.

YODA: So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?

Luke looks uncertainly out at the ship.

LUKE: Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.

YODA: No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.

LUKE: (focusing, quietly) All right. I'll give it a try.

YODA: No! Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.

Luke is frustrated. He's going into this challenge with doubts. He's levitated rocks, he's learned new strength and agility, he's learned more about the Force than he ever could have outside of that swampy classroom. But Yoda's message, "there is no try," is one that proves fatal to Luke's attempt. Then, after Luke does try (because there is trying, and there is failing, and Luke does both), Yoda dismisses his attempt, and does it for Luke. Yoda doesn't scaffold Luke and his Force Skillz, having Luke move larger and larger objects until he can handle levitating something the size of an X-Wing (roughly the size of a school bus, I'd guess); he does it for Luke. The closing words of that scene are Yoda saying to Luke "That is why you fail." So not only does Luke only get one "try," but his failure is reinforced by the teacher doing it for Luke, and then rubbing it in. If he could have reached Luke's head, he would have given him a noogie.

Obviously, as someone who loves Star Wars and specifically The Empire Strikes Back and specifically Yoda, I'm not saying he's a bad teacher. But think about all of the things Luke uses the Force for after this moment. We see him levitating R2-D2 at some point. We see him summoning his lightsaber to his hand. He may have used the Force to push himself into one of those waterslide tubes at the bottom of the shaft on Cloud City. He calls Leia with the Force at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. In Return of the Jedi, he does some mind tricks, he levitates C-3PO, he fights Darth Vader. We never see him physically do something as "big" as Yoda did for him on Dagobah. With Yoda's message "there is no try," and not allowing Luke to try again, was our young Jedi's path to learning closed for good?

Yoda's message is typically held up as one of perseverance. We can do hard things. Sometimes we ignore the barriers in our way and power through them. "Just Do It," right? But if in our classrooms we make the fear of failure bigger than it needs to be, we're doing our students a disservice. We need to help our students see the power of failure, and the greater strength in moving past it. I share my failure with students all the time. The things that I thought I couldn't do (knew I couldn't do) and then recovered from and found pleasure in. And some that I never did really enjoy, but was able to do. That's the more powerful message that Yoda could have shown Luke--that there is a try. There's a try, there's a fail, there's a try again. And eventually you can lift that X-Wing out of the swamp. Hopefully it doesn't take 900 years to get to that point. But give students the help, the support, and the confidence they need to recover from that failure. Because they can. There is a try.

And just so I can recover from saying bad things about Master Yoda, here's his greatest three minutes, which come right after the problematic quote at the heart of this blog post:



Last, if you want to find more ways to use Star Wars in the Classroom, check out my friends at Star Wars in the Classroom. They've got more ideas than you can shake a severed limb at. Since, you know. Star Wars is into that.